Back Professor Greg Dening

Professor Greg Dening

Challenges to Perform: History, Passion and the Imagination


I feel that I am in a privileged time of life. I am writer more than professor, although I think professing—giving witness to who I am and how I want to change the world—is what writing is about. Also, being free these days of the junk of academic life, I am sent the work of young scholars from all over the country and from many disciplines to examine. Sometimes it is a dozen MAs and PhDs in a year—in history, of course, literature, cultural studies, anthropology, theatre studies, education. Maybe in old age I am considered to be a bit of a softie as an examiner. Vanity leads me to hope that it is because I am seen as a champion of the creative imagination in young writers’ scholarly work.

Imagination, not fantasy. Finding a word that someone else will hear, a metaphor that someone else will see. Hearing the silences, seeing the absent. Taking the cliche out of what has been said over and over again. Working the fictions in our non-fiction the better to do what we are doing.

I looked up some of my examiner’s reports to remind me of what I have seen. Here are a few excerpts of what I have said recently about young scholar’s writing.

From a WA literature PhD on a 19th century Australasian Pictorial Atlas:

"The most brilliant moment in this brilliant and urbane study came for me at the end when I had been dazzled by the author's fluent, easy style, filled with admiration at how he had integrated different levels of discourse into his narrative, been delighted at continued insights into yet another topic, had savoured his epigrammatic mode of thinking and the contextual detail of his imageful descriptions, had taken pleasure—jouissance even—in the aesthetics of his finished artefact—the most brilliant moment, I say, came at the end, when I saw how much his eyes saw on the printed pages of the Atlas. I could not have imagined how a reflection on Page Space could so effectively wrap the corpus of the thesis around."

 From a Western Sydney cultural studies PhD intriguingly titled "Autobiography of a Massacre":

"I gulped a little when I received this creative thesis. I loved the Abstract. Thought it brilliant, was even jealous of a young scholar who could integrate a whole paradigm of thinking into her writing. When I saw how seriously she had set herself the task to unravel not just the story, but the telling of the story, and how personal was her present which she set up in relation to the past, I became a little frightened. I still loved her endeavour, but what were my responsibilities to the institution? There are no measuring sticks for this kind of work. This was as 'up your face' as you can get.

Pretty talented 'up your face', though. Had to admire her complete and integrated control of the reflective literature. She lived it, didn't just display it. Just how I think 'theoretical' elements should go. Not isolated into some separate section, but weaving through the narrative as reflection.

What worried me was that she wasn't protecting her flanks. I tell students: take your freedoms, but somewhere, for the sake of your future, write little reflections—in a preface, in an appendix, somewhere—where you face up to the disadvantages as well as the advantages of what you are doing. Show that you know what your difference is. Play your distinctiveness against the approaches of others—not negatively, not even critically—just to show the examiners you weren't acting out of ignorance or laziness to do it your way. Not for her. It was straight up your face."

History is one of those words that will defeat anybody who wants to define it or who wants to say something different about it. History is so established in our minds, it is hard to talk about it freely. All my teaching life I have told students that history wasn’t something they learned, wasn’t something they 'did'. History was something they made, something they wrote. And I always asked them first to describe something of their full, rich, living present present so that they could learn to describe a sparse and selected past.

I’m a writer. Let me read something right off my pen.

These are the opening paragraphs of an Afterword—at my age Afterwords, Forewords, Prologues, Epilogues and launches of books become rather frequent. This is an afterword to essays by young writers on first peoples’ histories. I am picking up the notion that there is no Before and After in culture. Culture is always Now, in-between, in process.


In the spirit of what I am about to say, let me first protest that there are no afterwords anymore than there are beforewords. Words hold their future, their present and their past within them. They swallow time like black holes. And when words carry space as well as time—giving identity to self and other—boundaries are just as blurred. In words, both memory and identity are fluent.

"Allow us to speak for ourselves", the untouchable women of Lucknow said to R.S. Khare in 1979. "Words mean so much to us". "Our words, crude and few, say well what we are. We do not need to borrow words from the learned." (Khare 1995: 147) That, I suppose, is a lesson that any anthropologist and historian must learn. Those whom we represent don't need to borrow the words of the learned to say who they are. Their words are never-endingly subtle and manifold. The crudities and sparsities are ours, the translators, as we give their words typologies and grammar.

That culture is talk and living is story is the "learneds'" discovery of this twentieth century. Clifford Geertz, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Paul Ricoeur, Ludwig Wittgenstein have said it so—to cite only a few of the "learned".

Talk is never bare words, of course. It is all the ways words are symbolised. It is voice and gesture, rhythm and timing, colour and texture. Talk is tattoo. Talk is body paint and house columns. Talk is never just stream of consciousness either. It is shaped and dramatised—in a dance, a song, a story, a joke. Talk might seem to be blown away by the wind on the lips, but it never is. It is always archived in some way in the continuities of living. Talk joins past, present and future.

"My grandmother gifted me with a pure heart and a knack of 'reading' a woman's belly with nimble fingers", an untouchable midwife told Khare. (Khare 1995: 158) Talk is reading and hearing too. "[My grandmother] used to tell me how her fingers 'saw' within the womb. Though illiterate, she 'read' like an Ayurvedic doctor, the full story of the mother and of the fragile life inside her. At ten, I remember I accompanied her a few times to her 'cases', just to move my trembling fingers over a mother's swollen belly, I felt so proud. My grandmother later taught me to recognize different signs and messages a pregnant woman's walk, cravings, limb movements, pains, and bodily odours emitted." Brahman and Untouchable "are born the same way, covered by the same mucus, blood and fluids...With the first cry of the just-born, I thank God and look at my soiled hands with pride. Each time it happens I feel a joy." Fingers that 'see' and 'read' are as chameleon-like as the words that describe them. Native tongues are just as semiotic. Living words weep and laugh, make double entendre, weave a double helix into gender, status and group.

It is a humbling thing to say, but a truth so obvious to the younger generation of "learneds" in this volume was hard learned by us, an older generation. But I can only speak for myself. And I can only speak of the past. I meet all my Natives, I meet all my Strangers, in libraries and archives. Historians never observe the past. They only observe the past transcribed, textualised, in some way. The past, for an historian, is always somebody else's history.

Recently someone called me excitedly from Cape Town, South Africa. They had seen words of mine in large red letters on a banner over the entrance to the South African National Gallery. There was an exhibition on living histories and memorialised identity at the Gallery at the time. It was called: "Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen" (Skotnes 1996). In all modesty, I can say that words of mine have been in footnotes, on the bottom of calendars, even in a Dictionary of Quotations, but never on a banner before. I liked the feeling. Here is what the banner said:

There is now no Native past without the Stranger, no Stranger without the Native. No one can hope to be mediator or interlocutor in that opposition of Native and Stranger because no one is gazing at it untouched by the power that is in it. Nor can anyone speak just for the one, just for the other. There is no escape from the politics of our knowledge, but that politics is not in the past. That politics is in the present.

It is not for me to say what you see and feel in what I write. Let me tell you the advice on writing I give students.

Be Mysterious. I tell them. ‘Mystery’, ‘mysterious’ are words layered with thousands of years of meaning. At the heart of these meanings is an understanding that a mystery is the most complicated truth clothed in story or play or sacramental sign. Being mysterious means that there is work to be done—not just by the story-teller, not just by the author, not just by the priest, but by the audience, the reader, the believer as well. There is no closure to mysteries, only another story, another translation. Let’s not be possessive of either our students or our readers. The highest ambition of a writer should be to liberate a creative reader.

Be Experiential. We write with authority when we write as observers. Not as spectators, but as observers. Our own honesty is at stake as observers. As observers our cultural antennae are at their peak. Every trivial detail is larger than itself in an observation. We see the interconnectedness of things. We read the gestures with the same astuteness that we need to have to survive culturally in everyday life. We are seeing the multiple meanings in every word. We are catching meaning in the context of the occasion. Above all, as observers we are reflective. We see ourselves mirrored in our own observations. We know our honesty. We know our uncertainties. We know our tricks.

Be Compassionate. It is awfully easy for an historian not to be compassionate. I sometimes think that this is because we write in the past tense and with hindsight. Try writing what you have written in the past tense in the present tense and you will see what I mean. Suddenly you have to know so much more. Suddenly the perspective is forward and not backward. We don’t have to write in the present tense though to be compassionate. What we have to do is to give back to the past we are writing about its own present tense. We give back to the past its own possibilities, its own ambiguities, its own incapacity to see the consequences of its action. It is only then that we represent what actually happened.

Be Entertaining. I am using the word ‘entertaining’ in its etymological sense of ‘holding between’, enter tenere in the Latin. Think of all the tricks we use in the theatre to hold the gaze and attention of an audience—darkened theatre, stage curtains, the triangular perspective of the stage. We have to find ways to entertain our readers in the same way. I suspect that if we watch novelists, playwrights, film directors entertaining their audiences we will find that they have more courage to be direct than we usually do. We take a hundred steps back to make one jump and keep shouting "I’m coming! I’m coming!". Readers can cope with a lot more directness and silence.

Be Performative. There is no such thing as perfect conditions for a performance. A performance is always limited in some way—by a stage-call, by a deadline, by a word limit. No use saying I could do it perfectly if it were four years rather than three, if it were 20,000 words not 10,000. Performance is always heralded by a risk taking. That is why it is different from practice. A performance is before somebody. We always know in a performance how we have gone. The whole family out there might say we were wonderful, but in performance we are our own critics. In performance, the risk-taking is often breaking through the formalism that limits us. In performance we can’t live by the formalities of the rules, we have to live by the meaning of the rules. We have to take the rules further to make them work. It is the function and purpose of the rule that needs to be obeyed not their literal interpretation.

Be Reforming. I make no secret that I want to change the world in my writing. In small ways: make it laugh, make it cry, make it serious for a moment, stop the dumbing-down, spoil the mythologisers day. But in larger ways, too. I can’t give life to the dead, but I can give them voice. I can’t give justice to the victims, but I can shake the living from their moral lethargy to change the things in the present that are the consequences of the past.

We have to liberate the creative reader, I say. Stir the exegete, make the critic, let them hear the global discourse that is the white noise behind all our disciplines. What tricks do we have for that? Aphorisms? Riddles? Perspectives of Incongruity? Metaphors? All of those. Our readers need to be rid of their fear of flying. They will not lose theirs if they catch ours.